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Simple harmonic motion

Let us reexamine the problem of a mass on a spring (see Sect. 5.6). Consider a
mass which slides over a horizontal frictionless surface. Suppose that the mass is
attached to a light horizontal spring whose other end is anchored to an immovable
object. See Fig. 42. Let be the extension of the spring: i.e., the difference between
the spring's actual length and its unstretched length. Obviously, can also be used as
a coordinate to determine the horizontal displacement of the mass.

The equilibrium state of the system corresponds to the situation where the mass is at
rest, and the spring is unextended (i.e., ). In this state, zero net force acts on the
mass, so there is no reason for it to start to move. If the system is perturbed from this
equilibrium state (i.e., if the mass is moved, so that the spring becomes extended) then
the mass experiences a restoring force given by Hooke's law:


Here, is the force constant of the spring. The negative sign indicates that is
indeed a restoring force. Note that the magnitude of the restoring force is directly

proportional to the displacement of the system from equilibrium (i.e., ). Of

course, Hooke's law only holds for small spring extensions. Hence, the displacement
from equilibrium cannot be made too large. The motion of this system is
representative of the motion of a wide range of systems when they
are slightly disturbed from a stable equilibrium state.

Newton's second law gives following equation of motion for the system:


This differential equation is known as the simple harmonic equation, and its solution
has been known for centuries. In fact, the solution is

where , , and are constants. We can demonstrate that Eq. (505) is indeed a
solution of Eq. (504) by direct substitution. Substituting Eq. (505) into Eq. (504), and
recalling from calculus that and , we

It follows that Eq. (505) is the correct solution provided


Figure 95 shows a graph of versus obtained from Eq. (505). The type of motion
shown here is called simple harmonic motion. It can be seen that the

displacement oscillates between and . Here, is termed

the amplitude of the oscillation. Moreover, the motion is periodic in time (i.e., it
repeats exactly after a certain time period has elapsed). In fact, the period is


This result is easily obtained from Eq. (505) by noting that is a periodic
function of with period . The frequency of the motion (i.e., the number of
oscillations completed per second) is

It can be seen that is the motion's angular frequency (i.e., the

frequency converted into radians per second). Finally, the phase

angle determines the times at which the oscillation attains its maximum
amplitude, : in fact,

Here, is an arbitrary integer.

Table 4: Simple harmonic motion.

0 0

0 0

0 0

Table 4 lists the displacement, velocity, and acceleration of the mass at various phases
of the simple harmonic cycle. The information contained in this table can easily be
derived from the simple harmonic equation, Eq. (505). Note that all of the non-zero
values shown in this table represent either the maximum or the minimum value taken
by the quantity in question during the oscillation cycle.

Figure 95: Simple harmonic motion.

We have seen that when a mass on a spring is disturbed from equilibrium it
executes simple harmonic motion about its equilibrium state. In physical terms, if the

initial displacement is positive ( ) then the restoring force overcompensates, and

sends the system past the equilibrium state ( ) to negative displacement states (

). The restoring force again overcompensates, and sends the system back
through to positive displacement states. The motion then repeats itself ad
infinitum. The frequency of the oscillation is determined by the spring stiffness, ,
and the system inertia, , via Eq. (507). In contrast, the amplitude and phase angle of
the oscillation are determined by the initial conditions. Suppose that the instantaneous

displacement and velocity of the mass at are and , respectively. It

follows from Eq. (505) that



Here, use has been made of the well-known

identities and . Hence, we obtain




since and .

The kinetic energy of the system is written

Recall, from Sect. 5.6, that the potential energy takes the form


Hence, the total energy can be written


since and . Note that the total energy is a constant of

the motion, as expected for an isolated system. Moreover, the energy is proportional to
the amplitude squared of the motion. It is clear, from the above expressions, that
simple harmonic motion is characterized by a constant backward and forward flow of
energy between kinetic and potential components. The kinetic energy attains its
maximum value, and the potential energy attains it minimum value, when the
displacement is zero (i.e., when ). Likewise, the potential energy attains its
maximum value, and the kinetic energy attains its minimum value, when the

displacement is maximal (i.e., when ). Note that the minimum value

of is zero, since the system is instantaneously at rest when the displacement is
The torsion pendulum
Consider a disk suspended from a torsion wire attached to its centre. See Fig. 96. This
setup is known as a torsion pendulum. A torsion wire is essentially inextensible, but is
free to twist about its axis. Of course, as the wire twists it also causes the disk attached
to it to rotate in the horizontal plane. Let be the angle of rotation of the disk, and
let correspond to the case in which the wire is untwisted.

Figure 96: A torsion pendulum.

Any twisting of the wire is inevitably associated with mechanical deformation. The
wire resists such deformation by developing a restoring torque, , which acts to
restore the wire to its untwisted state. For relatively small angles of twist, the
magnitude of this torque is directly proportional to the twist angle. Hence, we can


where is the torque constant of the wire. The above equation is essentially a
torsional equivalent to Hooke's law. The rotational equation of motion of the system is

where is the moment of inertia of the disk (about a perpendicular axis through its
centre). The moment of inertia of the wire is assumed to be negligible. Combining the
previous two equations, we obtain
Equation (520) is clearly a simple harmonic equation [cf., Eq. (504)]. Hence, we can
immediately write the standard solution [cf., Eq. (505)]


where [cf., Eq. (507)]


We conclude that when a torsion pendulum is perturbed from its equilibrium state
(i.e., ), it executes torsional oscillations about this state at a fixed frequency, ,
which depends only on the torque constant of the wire and the moment of inertia of
the disk. Note, in particular, that the frequency is independent of the amplitude of the
oscillation [provided remains small enough that Eq. (518) still applies]. Torsion
pendulums are often used for time-keeping purposes. For instance, the balance wheel
in a mechanical wristwatch is a torsion pendulum in which the restoring torque is
provided by a coiled spring.
The simple pendulum
Consider a mass suspended from a light inextensible string of length , such that
the mass is free to swing from side to side in a vertical plane, as shown in Fig. 97.
This setup is known as a simple pendulum. Let be the angle subtended between the
string and the downward vertical. Obviously, the equilibrium state of the simple
pendulum corresponds to the situation in which the mass is stationary and hanging
vertically down (i.e., ). The angular equation of motion of the pendulum is

where is the moment of inertia of the mass, and is the torque acting on the
system. For the case in hand, given that the mass is essentially a point particle, and is
situated a distance from the axis of rotation (i.e., the pivot point), it is easily seen
that .

Figure 97: A simple pendulum.

The two forces acting on the mass are the downward gravitational force, , and the
tension, , in the string. Note, however, that the tension makes no contribution to the
torque, since its line of action clearly passes through the pivot point. From simple
trigonometry, the line of action of the gravitational force passes a
distance from the pivot point. Hence, the magnitude of the gravitational torque

is . Moreover, the gravitational torque is a restoring torque: i.e., if the

mass is displaced slightly from its equilibrium state (i.e., ) then the gravitational
force clearly acts to push the mass back toward that state. Thus, we can write


Combining the previous two equations, we obtain the following angular equation of
motion of the pendulum:

Unfortunately, this is not the simple harmonic equation. Indeed, the above equation
possesses no closed solution which can be expressed in terms of simple functions.

Suppose that we restrict our attention to relatively small deviations from the
equilibrium state. In other words, suppose that the angle is constrained to take fairly

small values. We know, from trigonometry, that for less than about it is a good
approximation to write


Hence, in the small angle limit, Eq. (525) reduces to

which is in the familiar form of a simple harmonic equation. Comparing with our
original simple harmonic equation, Eq. (504), and its solution, we conclude that the
angular frequency of small amplitude oscillations of a simple pendulum is given by

In this case, the pendulum frequency is dependent only on the length of the pendulum
and the local gravitational acceleration, and is independent of the mass of the
pendulum and the amplitude of the pendulum swings (provided
that remains a good approximation). Historically, the simple pendulum was
the basis of virtually all accurate time-keeping devices before the advent of electronic

clocks. Simple pendulums can also be used to measure local variations in .

The compound pendulum
Consider an extended body of mass with a hole drilled though it. Suppose that the
body is suspended from a fixed peg, which passes through the hole, such that it is free
to swing from side to side, as shown in Fig. 98. This setup is known as a compound

Figure 98: A compound pendulum.

Let be the pivot point, and let be the body's centre of mass, which is located a
distance from the pivot. Let be the angle subtended between the downward
vertical (which passes through point ) and the line . The equilibrium state of
the compound pendulum corresponds to the case in which the centre of mass lies
vertically below the pivot point: i.e., . See Sect. 10.3. The angular equation of
motion of the pendulum is simply


where is the moment of inertia of the body about the pivot point, and is the
torque. Using similar arguments to those employed for the case of the simple
pendulum (recalling that all the weight of the pendulum acts at its centre of mass), we
can write

Note that the reaction, , at the peg does not contribute to the torque, since its line of
action passes through the pivot point. Combining the previous two equations, we
obtain the following angular equation of motion of the pendulum:

Finally, adopting the small angle approximation, , we arrive at the simple

harmonic equation:

It is clear, by analogy with our previous solutions of such equations, that the angular
frequency of small amplitude oscillations of a compound pendulum is given by


It is helpful to define the length


Equation (533) reduces to


which is identical in form to the corresponding expression for a simple pendulum. We

conclude that a compound pendulum behaves like a simple pendulum with effective
length .
Uniform circular motion
Consider an object executing uniform circular motion of radius . Let us set up a
cartesian coordinate system whose origin coincides with the centre of the circle, and

which is such that the motion is confined to the - plane. As illustrated in Fig. 99,
the instantaneous position of the object can be conveniently parameterized in terms of
an angle .

Figure 99: Uniform circular motion.

Since the object is executing uniform circular motion, we expect the angle to
increase linearly with time. In other words, we can write


where is the angular rotation frequency (i.e., the number of radians through which
the object rotates per second). Here, it is assumed that at , for the sake of
From simple trigonometry, the - and -coordinates of the object can be written



respectively. Hence, combining the previous equations, we obtain



Here, use has been made of the trigonometric identity .A

comparison of the above two equations with the standard equation of simple harmonic
motion, Eq. (505), reveals that our object is executing simple harmonic motion

simultaneously along both the - and the -axes. Note, however, that these two

motions are (i.e., radians) out of phase. Moreover, the amplitude of the
motion equals the radius of the circle. Clearly, there is a close relationship between
simple harmonic motion and circular motion.